The Fundamental Injustice of the Cosmos

Is the universe just? Is God just? The Guardian today has a couple of pieces which examine these two separate — but interrelated — questions.

First, Oliver Burkeman considers the matter of a just world:

The world, obviously, is a manifestly unjust place: people are always meeting fates they didn’t deserve, or not receiving rewards they did deserve for hard work or virtuous behaviour. Yet several decades of research have established that our need to believe otherwise runs deep. Faced with evidence of injustice, we’ll certainly try to alleviate it if we can – but, if we feel powerless to make things right, we’ll do the next best thing, psychologically speaking: we’ll convince ourselves that the world isn’t so unjust after all.

As we seek to explain the world, Burkeman writes, our desire to find meaning in things we cannot stop meets our desire to believe that things happen for a reason. Bad things happen to someone? Well, it must be their fault. This gives some order to the universe, Burkeman says, and helps us make sense of what is, at face value, senseless.

But it’s a lie that allows us to blame those who suffer.

Facing the truth – that the world visits violence and poverty and discrimination upon people capriciously, with little regard for what they’ve done to deserve it – is much scarier. Because, if there’s no good explanation for why any specific person is suffering, it’s far harder to escape the frightening conclusion that it could easily be you next.

In a related piece, Giles Frasier looks at Stephen Fry’s recent comments that God is an “evil, capricious, monstrous maniac” for allowing the world to be filled with so much suffering and brutality. Frasier writes that he actually admires Fry, but adds that he doesn’t believe in the God that Stephen Fry describes either:

This is why the Jesus story is, for me, the most theologically revolutionary story that there can be. Because it imagines God and power separated. God as a baby. God poor. God helpless on a cross. God with a mocking and ironic crown of thorns. In these scenes it is Caesar who has the power. And so the question posed is: which one will you follow when push comes to shove? You can follow what is right and get strung up for it. Or you can cosy up to power and do as you are told. By saying that he will stare ultimate power in the face and, without fear, call it by its real name, Fry has indicated he is on the side of the angels (even though he does not believe in them). Indeed, Fry is following in a long tradition of religious polemic, from Job to Blake and beyond.

Furthermore, this powerless thing subverts Fry’s accusation of God’s iniquity. For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well.

The pieces are related because they point to similar philosophical and moral construction of the universe: that it is meaningful, good, and just. Or that it should be. And both Frasier and Burkeman point out the problems that exist with those very ideas. Because our experience of the world is so at odds with these notions, and the notions themselves are so compelling, so beguiling, and so powerful, that we are willing to discount the world as we experience it for the notion of a good, just, and ordered world.

This is not a view I share.

Some first principles, for anyone out there interested in what passes for my political philosophy. Or at least the roots of my political philosophy, which stem from my experience both in my family and at school (chapters 3-5 of The Love That Matters).

The world is a fundamentally unjust place. The universe is cruel, capricious, and deeply unfair. So is God. There is no rhyme or reason for human suffering, no inherent meaning. Suffering is not about desert. It is at best a moral accident, what I call an artifact, something with no inherent or discernible meaning. The most that can be said about suffering is that it tends to pile upon the weakest and most marginal. That tells me something about the organization of the world, that human beings almost always organize themselves to favor power, but not about the meaning of the suffering itself. Power can do what it wants. That is the nature of power, regardless of who exercises it. It is both unjust and inescapable.

And this just is. It is not in need of explanation. It is an explanation.

I appreciate what this means. In a universe without an inherent or discernible order, there is nothing but the exercise of power. Yep. I get that. As I said, power is inevitable and inescapable. Unjust, but inevitable.

I will go farther — there is no inherent moral order to the universe. Certainly not one human beings can discern with reason. We can know nothing meaningful about God absent revelation. (I know, in terms of the historic teaching of the church, this makes me a heretic. I simply see no evidence in either the world or in scripture that such an order exists or is even said to exist. The idea of such an order is a conceit of Christendom.) Those who believe in this kind of order have little or nothing to say about suffering or to those against whom that order is arrayed. Because the order they support seems to justify morally the suffering that order inflicts upon the world. To be more precise, it justifies the infliction of suffering as a necessary or essential component of that order. (To be base about this: it created school, called it good, made me go, and then didn’t care what happened to me once it put me there.) The order itself is so important that the inflicting of suffering is acceptable. At least as long as that suffering is borne by those who do not matter. Who do not have power.

This is why I cannot be a conservative despite being philosophically and temperamentally inclined to conservatism. (Well, that and I think nationalism — particularly American nationalism — is a form of idolatry.) I think the conservative intellectual tradition understands human beings better than the revolutionary and progressive traditions do, and have a far greater appreciation for the limits of what human beings are morally capable of. (Movement conservatism, however, has lost sight of limits, and believes in the rather revolutionary notion that rightly-guided human action can remake the world with any reference to what came before.)

I appreciate Marxist critiques of power. Real Marxists generally have a sound, thorough and thoughtful understanding of the injustice of power. But I have always found Marxist solutions to those problems to be laughable (and equally unjust). And it is an absurd conceit to believe somehow that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Social justice talk sounds far too much like Marxism — third-rate, badly constructed, pre-digested, tepid and intellectually unserious Marxism — for me to take very seriously. I was sympathetic to notions of equality, freedom, and democracy once, but no longer, and have concluded that these things — or rather, the aspiration for these things — is the problem. And not the solution.

The notion that power should be used in pursuit of justice seems, again, a deluded conceit to me. Perhaps power can, at times, do that. Maybe. But more often, it is far easier to use power against the weak and the marginal. And that’s where most pursuits of “justice” eventually end up anyway.

I consider governance an insoluble puzzle — it cannot be done justly but it cannot be avoided. Put two or more people together, and you create and sustain power, authority, and collective resources. It can be done well, and some arrangements are better than others, but this is not a matter of mechanics so much as it is an accident of history — the collision of circumstance and personality. We are mistaken to think we can “automate” governance through constitutional or procedural arrangements. It’s a human activity, and entirely dependent on the quality of the individual human beings who govern. Even good government still inflicts pain and suffering on the weak, powerless, and marginal. That is unavoidable.

And so, per Burkeman, what are you going to call that suffering? What are you going to say to those made to suffer by the order you think good and right?

It may sound strange, but this is not a matter of despair for me. I find a great deal of hope in this view of the cosmos. Because the role of the church in this is simple. We should not take a stake in the power or order or arrangement of the world. We should not sustain or apologize. We are partisans of neither Caesar nor Spartacus. We are followers of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one. We should be free-riders of the world’s order, knowing as well that God calls some people to arrange and enforce that order. (This means they are neither more or less moral; rather, it means they are visible witnesses to the inescapability of sin, that we are sinners “in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have failed to do,” and that God works for good even in our sinfulness.) We are, or should be, the visible evidence of Frasier’s confession that the church is God and power separated. That the church is the presence of a suffering God with those who suffer in the world.

3 thoughts on “The Fundamental Injustice of the Cosmos

  1. I’ve been reading your blog with some interest after Rod Dreher recommended you. I am curious if this blog really represents your views of justice or government. Is Nazi Germany really no different than pre- Nazi Germany? Does the fact of inescapable injustice mean that all no striving can occur for “more perfect unions”?

    “We should not take a stake in the power or order or arrangement of the world”. But doesn’t that negate movements like civil rights (lead by a very Christian man)? Why on earth should Bonhoeffer have protested and plotted? I can’t imagine thinking there are no degrees of distinction. Better war than the peace of Nazism ( I understand that’s not usually the choice).

    . The universe is cruel, capricious, and deeply unfair. So is God. – Can we really trust such a God?

    • I appreciate this, and thanks for responding. I’m not honestly sure what a more perfect union is, given that we govern with violence and that someone will always be on the receiving end of that violence. That is inescapable, but calling our violence “just and right” is not. For much of human history, people didn’t have control over who governed them or how — they had to live with the circumstances they found themselves in — and I’m increasingly convinced that our faith in fostering “more perfect unions” is a huge problem. Because it gives license to violence we call righteous in pursuit of that order.

      I don’t believe we should take a stake in governing the world. Because state action is all about “who will you shoot or threaten to shoot in order to get your way (or achieve the common good, which is the same thing).” The church has no business taking sides, in picking who will be threatened (or shot) or not. We do, and cannot help it, but that is what happens when you confess that we are captive to sin, and cannot free ourselves. Some orders are clearly worse than others, and some better, but all are equally sinful. And all, to the extent they persist, are equally blessed.

      As for the universe being cruel, capricious and deeply unfair, Jeremiah says as much in Lamentations, the psalms speak to this, and the prophets and the history of Israel speak to this as well. Yes, we can trust such a God, because we are redeemed regardless of what happens in and to us or the world. God’s love for us is independent of the order of the cosmos. Our redemption is independent of the order of the cosmos.

  2. I wouldn’t say violence is generally ever “right and just” but whether the use of force or subversion is always violence is another question. From what I understand Martin Luther believed (maybe wrongly) in the use of state power. Also, whatever occurs, some humans can find ways to justify it. The question is whether or not from a more objective sense, something is more perfect. I’ll take America, even with its many sins, over North Korea on any day of the week. Free people are better than slaves. Money is better than material poverty. Children who having loving parents are better off than children who have abusive parents.

    I’m not sure I believe in an order of the cosmos, per say. I do think God acted in human history, and we ought to believe, however difficult the circumstances, that we are not abandoned by God. I do not find much hope in an indifferent cosmos, which has only ever been interfered with once. Not only would we not pray for miracles, but what would be the sense of petitionary prayer, at all?

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